Full disclosure: The original RoboCop is my #2 favorite film of all time. While it is impossible for me to completely separate my intense bias for the original and my views on the remake, I will do my best to judge this new film on its own merits and not to fill this review with superfluous comparisons to the 1987 classic. However, the very nature of remaking a film invites comparison, so while I will undoubtedly reference the original film when I find it appropriate, I will attempt to keep such references at a minimum.
I'm not against remaking films. In fact, one of my most anticipated films of 2014 is the remake of the Japanese classic, Gojira (Godzilla to all of us gaijin). There is almost always a new and interesting way to tell an old story, even when it doesn't seem necessary. RoboCop (2014) seems utterly unnecessary, and it more than proves that it is, but what is ultimately disappointing about director Jose Padilha's new version is that there are so many original and thought-provoking ideas, but they end up getting suffocated by the very nature of the narrative and the fact that this is a RoboCop movie, which means the audience is supposed to expect certain things (or so the filmmakers believe).
Case in point: the pre-credits sequence had me genuinely intrigued in this world, taking place in Tehran as OmniCorp robots subjugated a local neighborhood while the Glenn Beck-ish Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) broadcast his overwhelming support of OmniCorp to the American people. While Novak's only purpose is to bluntly nail home the political opinions of the film (and they are overwhelming obvious: drone warfare = bad! Biased media = bad!), it at least shows that the movie wants to be more than just an excuse to sell toys and give fan-service. But, as soon as the opening titles pop up, we hear the familiar Basil Poledouris theme from the original, and you can't help but be yanked out of the new vision the opening sequence was crafting.
This isn't a constant problem throughout the film, but it happens enough times to leave a bad impression. All the callbacks to the original film feel either forced or useless, and only serve to remind you that this is a remake and not a wholly different interpretation. That's a real shame because there is a lot of effort put into doing things differently this time around. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is fully aware of his condition when he first wakes up from the attempt on his life, which changes the motivation of the character from the outset. Instead of regaining his humanity, his arc should be about coming to terms with his artificial body. This is setup (again, in a blatant but thoughtful way) by introducing Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), the scientist who creates Alex's robotic body, as a researcher who is providing war veterans with new prosthetic limbs. This is a good space to be in terms of fresh commentary, but yet again the film rips it away in favor of kowtowing to aspects of the original. When the scientists upload all the criminal data they have into Alex's brain, Alex sees his own attempted murder and begins to have a seizure. In order to remove his emotions from the equation, they lower his dopamine levels, turning him into the version of RoboCop that is unaware of his own humanity (which he then has to regain. Ugh). This is probably the biggest misstep in the film for me, since I was actually enjoying Alex's reactions to his condition and his attempts to come to terms with them. There is a scene where his prosthetic parts are removed, and Alex sees that the only human elements left of him are his head, heart, lungs and right hand. It's easily the best (and most horrific) part of the film and Kinnaman's reactions are not only believable but affecting. If the movie had been more focused on that arc, I think it would have surpassed its many shortcomings.
But, it doesn't. The worst thing about RoboCop (2014) is that it isn't extremely bad in any one department, but rather it is boringly mediocre in every department. I can't believe I'm actually going to write this, but I almost prefer the gonzo awfulness of RoboCop 3 to the sterile blandness of this new film. While RoboCop 3 is a terrible film, at least it is notably and ridiculously terrible. RoboCop (2014) coasts along at a flat-lined pace, never feeling like it's headed anywhere momentous or satisfying, but also never fully plunging into memorable bits of "so-bad-it's-good" territory. This isn't helped by a cast that is uniformly "okay." It's almost a triumph how by-the-numbers this entire ensemble is. No one feels like they are phoning it in, but no one is giving you anything worth remembering once you walk out of the theater (with Kinnaman's one scene that I mentioned earlier excluded). Even the villains aren't given any chance to chew scenery or give themselves defining personal traits. The fact that this film can't get a fun performance out of Michael Keaton is probably the most disheartening part when it comes to the performers.
But, what about the action? The only sequence that even sticks out in my memory is when Alex goes to eliminate the criminal who made an attempt on his life. The shootout takes place in the dark and is only illuminated by the thermal vision of the bad guys' goggles, RoboCop's heat vision, the muzzle flashes from the guns and the few lights on RoboCop's visor. In concept, it sounds like a really cool segment, but it ends up looking cheap and unfulfilled. Actually, a lot of the movie could be described that way. Even Robo's final outfit just doesn't look convincing, which is a bummer because his earlier costume was a nice blend of classic imagery with a modern slant.
The movie isn't without some merit. The song tracks selected for the film are fun, even if they don't jive with whatever tone the film is attempting. Having Alex compete against a robot soldier while "If I Only Had A Heart" plays gave me a chuckle. When The Clash's "I Fought the Law" popped on during the closing credits, it felt completely unconnected to the film I just watched, but it was still nice to hear it. Jose Padilha is by no means a bad director (go watch his Elite Squad films for proof) and he shoots the film competently. I was never confused as to what was going on in the frame or how the timeline of events was progressing. With the exception of one particular line that was lifted from the original, none of the references were groan-inducing, just unneeded. Everything in the film functions, but it all feels like it is within a very specific set of boundaries. It never thinks outside of its own box, which lets you slip into the film's tone fairly easily, but once you're there, you feel a lot like Alex when his dopamine levels get lowered.
The one thing that I think this version is sorely lacking is an edge, not just in terms of violence but in its execution. There is the slightest tease of it during the pre-credits sequence when suicide bombers attack the OmniCorp robots just so they can die on television. A young teenage boy runs outside with a knife in his hand and is gunned down by an ED-209. We don't see the full repercussions of these actions which robs them of their intended impact, but the fact that they are at least present gives you some hope that the film will follow up on such grim realities. Instead, it just moseys along into the narrative it knows it is forced to tell: guy becomes robot hero cop and regains his humanity. I kind of wish I could see this film as an original science fiction story, instead of being tied down to the name "RoboCop." There's so much potential on-screen that when it all gets squandered, it's more saddening than it is maddening.
On paper, RoboCop (2014) does a lot of stuff right when it comes to being a remake. It is focusing on new themes and social critiques while attempting to stay true to things people enjoyed about the original. There are new iterations of characters and a new narrative structure in place. Where it falters is in its implementation of those things. If it had strayed even further from home base, it might have run the risk of being a worse picture, but at least it would have been more indelible than what we have now. As it stands, RoboCop (2014) is one film that will help fuel the fiery belief some hold that remakes are worthless. I'll just wait and hope that the version they put together thirty years from now is better. ...Or I'll just pop in my DVD of the original. Sorry, I couldn't resist.